Bordering Ethiopia are north-south trending highlands that drop to a coastal desert plain on the east, mountainous terrain on the northwest, and rolling plains on the southwest. When Eritrea declared independence in 1993, it kept the whole Ethiopian coastline along the Red Sea.
Eritrea is a tiny nation (by African standards), approximately the size of Pennsylvania or England, but the unique terrain of the Great Rift Valley, which runs across East Africa, the Red Sea, and the Middle East, has resulted in a varied and contrasted environment.
Natural attractions are the most fascinating places to visit in the country. In the nation, there are six major topographical characteristics. The central and southern highlands, the western lowlands, the Sahel in the north, the subtropical eastern escarpments, the northern coast and archipelago, and the southern coast are all part of Eritrea.
The capital, Asmara, is located in the highlands, which are between 1500 and 3500 meters above sea level and have a moderate, Mediterranean, and dry climate with minimal seasonal fluctuation. The wet season lasts from May to September, whereas the dry season lasts from December to April. The temperature in the highlands, however, varies significantly depending on height. Valleys, hills, and huge stretches of plateaus are interspersed by spectacular chasms and gorges throughout the terrain. The scenery, which resembles pictures from Mars, is red-brown, rusty, beige, or black (stone and rubble-colored) during the dry season, which lasts from December to April. In the villages and towns, the vegetation consists mostly of shrubs, eucalyptus, aloes, cactus, and the occasional explosively colored specks of bougainvillea, jacaranda, or other decorative plants. The rainy season provides torrents of rain and nutrition to the soil, which in the post-rain months of August through October turns into a lush, emerald, and grassy landscape.
Rural highlanders live in communities with stone homes, tiny plots of land, old Christian and Muslim temples, people farming and herding with traditional methods and minimal technology, and carrying their products (as well as themselves) with mules and camels. The suburbs of Asmara, the capital, are a wonderful location to explore the highland scenery. The Martyrs National Park was established in 2000 near the hamlet of Tselot. At the crest of the highland plateau, where the capital was constructed, there is a hilly forest and wildlife preserve.
The western lowlands are located between 1500 and 100 meters above sea level and have a tropical climate with high humidity and heat during the day during the rainy season (which runs from May to September, as does the Highlands) and dry hot days with chilly nights during the dry season. During the wet season, the plains are grassy, muddy, and green, whereas during the dry season, they are dry, dusty, and sparsely covered with vegetation.
The plains are broken up by odd hills and mountains, as well as three seasonal rivers that begin in the Eritrean highlands and one permanent river that originates in the Ethiopian highlands and forms part of the Ethiopian border (the Setit, also known as Tekeze in Ethiopia and Atbara in Sudan). These rivers run through the lowlands, and all of the main towns are located on or near them. The southern part of the lowlands is covered with classic African Savannah, with occasional herds of wild African elephants and other Savannah-type vegetation and wildlife. The Sahara desert encompasses the northern half of the lowlands, which consists of large swaths of sand dunes and rocks punctuated by a few poorly inhabited oasis. Because it sits exactly between the dry and green sections of the lowlands, the market town of Tessenei near the Sudanese border and its environs is the ideal location to experience both sides of the lowlands. Tessenei serves as a crossroads for both nomadic desert peoples and sedentary agricultural populations in the Savannah. Tessenei provides tourists with some of the most basic facilities, such as hotels with showers and flush toilets, stores (including photo shops where visitors may purchase film and bottled beverages), and restaurants offering well-prepared meals. It takes approximately 10 hours to get there via asphalt road from Asmara’s capital, passing through Keren and the cities of Agordat and Barentu. Buses leave Asmara every day. It is also accessible by dirt road from the Sudanese city of Kassala, which is just 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. However, given the border bureaucracy, even small trip might take a whole day to complete.
The Sahel in northern Eritrea is located on the eastern outskirts of the vast Sahara desert, and it stands in stark contrast to the sandy deserts of the western lowlands and the eastern coast. The Sahel is a tall narrow range of mountains that stretches all the way north to Sudan and Egypt, varying in height from 1000 to 2500 meters (3280-8200 feet) (a feature of the Great Rift Valley). Herding nomads are sparsely inhabited on the east and west slopes. The rainy season on the western slopes coincides with that in the Highlands and western lowlands, while the eastern slopes have a climate similar to that of the Red Sea, with intermittent precipitation from December to March. This region receives much less rainfall than the majority of the country’s populated areas. The environment is desert-like, with minimal humidity, dry hot days and chilly nights, and little seasonal temperature change. Temperature differences do exist, though, between various elevations.
The advantages of the wet seasons have also been severely hampered by heavy erosion caused by conflict and prior overgrazing. As a result, the terrain is dry, suitable only for the most tenacious of nomadic herding tribes. Impenetrable and hair-raising mountain passes, gorges, and valleys make up the center and northern core. When Eritrean rebels (who now make up the country’s government) battled Ethiopia for Eritrea’s independence, this was their primary stronghold. Anseba, a seasonal river that originates in the highlands and bisects the mountain range before draining into a delta on Sudan’s Red Sea coast just north of the Eritrean border, bisects the mountain range and bisects the mountain range. The village of Nakfa, which was the primary base of the Eritrean resistance and gave the national currency its name, is the finest location to visit in the Sahel. A war museum honoring the independence fight is also located in Nakfa, as well as a pleasant but modest government-run hotel with a restaurant and satellite television.
It may be reached by road from Asmara through Keren and by dirt road from Keren via the town of Afabet. Because the route between Keren and Nakfa is bad, it takes 10 to 12 hours. Buses to Nakfa leave early in the morning from Keren, thus a journey from Asmara would need an overnight stay in Keren (which is served many times daily from Asmara). Afabet may also be reached by an asphalt route from Massawa’s harbor through She’eb. The drive from Massawa to Nakfa will still take approximately 10 hours since the inevitable Afabet-Nakfa section is the most difficult. Massawa to Nakfa buses operate once a week.
The eastern (seaward) slopes of the highland area make up the subtropical eastern escarpment. This sliver of land is unique in that it contains the country’s sole subtropical rainforest and one of the world’s biggest collections of seasonal (winter-migrant) and indigenous bird species (tropical). Because it is so hilly, it has never been extensively populated (fortunately), as farming is very difficult. Nonetheless, there are a few modest coffee and spice farms in the country’s central highlands, as well as tropical fruit plantations in the lower reaches. The Solomouna National Park, which is accessible by asphalt road from both the capital Asmara and the port of Massawa, is the finest location to visit in this region. The only method to go to the national park is to take a guided trip with one of Eritrea’s tour companies, all of which are based in Asmara. This area is also passed over while traveling from highland Asmara to seaside Massawa. The towns and villages between Nefasit (25 km from Asmara) and Dongollo Alto are representative of the region’s character (50 km from Asmara).
The northern shore and archipelago are mostly composed of a sandy red-brown and beige semi-desert, with occasional vegetation and volcanic basalt-rock near the mainland coast. The elevation ranges from 0 to 500 meters (1640 feet) above sea level, and the climate is always tropical and humid, with uncomfortable highs of 37 to 50 degrees Celsius (99-122 degrees Fahrenheit) from May to September, before cooling to breezy and warm “lows” of 25 to 35 degrees (77-95 degrees Fahrenheit) from October to March. On the coast, the rainy season is a meaningless notion since it seldom rains, except for the occasional year when a big storm hits. Although there may be some little precipitation and cloudiness from November to March, the coast is mostly reliant on runoff from the highlands and eastern escarpments for its water supply (from aquifers and table water). The hot springs resort, approximately 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Massawa’s port city, offers hot mineral water baths and the water is also bottled as one of the country’s most popular mineral water sources and brands (Dongollo, sold in brown glass bottles).
The coast and archipelago are home to some of the most pristine coral reefs in the Red Sea, teeming with marine life ranging from dugongs and manta rays to large schools of tigerfish, dolphins, and, of course, sharks. Eritrea’s coast has some of the finest diving in the world, but it also has some of the most restricted diving and tourism facilities in the world, all of which are located in Massawa and are very costly. Due to pollution, floods, and erosion from the adjacent hills, the beaches in and around the port city of Massawa, as well as to the north, are of moderate to bad condition. Large mangrove wetlands dot the northern shore, which are excellent for fishing and bird viewing but not for beach life.
The beaches on the Dahlak islands, on the other hand, are immaculately clean, white, and beautiful, with turquoise lagoons. The Dahlak islands may only be reached by chartering a boat from a permitted firm in Massawa. The largest island, Dahlak Kebir, is just 90 kilometers (56 miles) distant, as are several smaller deserted islands like Dissei, which may be visited for a reasonable day trip from Massawa. Beyond Dissei, the archipelago stretches considerably farther and has much more to offer. Because of Eritrea’s poor infrastructure, lengthier voyages and seeing more of the country’s attractions are prohibitively costly and only accessible via a few European-run firms headquartered in Massawa. It is difficult to cruise freely on one’s own boat or a hired boat in the nation due to the country’s increased security. The port city of Massawa is clearly the finest location to explore the northern coast and archipelago.
Because of its volcanoes, quicksand, boiling sulfuric mud pools, salt lakes, coastal cliffs, and interior depressions, Eritrea’s southern coast is arguably its most spectacular but unforgiving terrain. The height varies from nearly 2000 meters (6,560 feet) above sea level to more than 100 meters (330 feet) below sea level, with salt pans and oddly formed rocks, and temperatures that are among the hottest on the globe. Eritrea’s southern coast has the highest recorded temperatures, reaching 55°C on a regular basis (131 F). Humidity keeps temperatures high all day, and seasonal fluctuations are similar to those seen on the northern shore. The contrast between the background of the towering mountains of the highlands to the west and the wide stretches of coastal desert to the east creates a striking scene in the northern interior regions of the southern coast.
Because of the highland rainfall and runoff, it is the only place with significant vegetation in the whole region. Mountain goats and ostriches are among the fauna that may be seen in the region. The area is about 500 kilometers (310 miles) away between the port towns of Massawa and Assab. The area is best explored as part of a tour between the two towns, although excursions from Massawa and/or Assab may also be included, particularly for journeys focusing on interior scenery. Due to the severe temperature and political unrest near the Ethiopian border, any trip to this area without a guide is prohibited. The sole public transportation in the region is a few times weekly bus service between Massawa and Assab. Nasair from Asmara also visits Assab twice a week.